Mike Lopresti: A year later, writer reflects on 2021 March Madness

Sports: Mike LoprestiA year later, I still remember the look on the Oklahoma player’s face as they hustled him out a back door at the hotel, hoping no one would notice. A van to whisk him out of town was waiting, and here he came, in a full mask and nearly a hazmat suit. What a way to leave the NCAA Tournament. But so it went, whenever the COVID test came back positive.

Indianapolis, March 2021 AD.

It has been a year now since the entire men’s NCAA Tournament came to town—lock, stock and nasal swabs. Things have changed a bit. This weekend, the Sweet 16 is splashed coast to coast among major metropolitan areas—Philadelphia and Chicago. San Antonio and San Francisco. Last March on this weekend, to see everything, you needed only to drive from Bankers Life to Hinkle.

To mark the anniversary, permit a few personal recollections. I spent months embedded in the NCAA and Indy Sports Corp. meetings, as this monstrous and incredibly complicated effort unfolded. For those who made it happen, two stark realities hovered over every single day.

No. 1: The biggest, relentless threat came from an enemy no one could see.

And No. 2: Organizers fully realized that, if anyone fouled up, the whole world would know, and applause could turn to hoots and criticism in the time it took to hit a text send button.

All that, and they pulled it off. The mass infection wave never came. The players did not develop psychosis from the ordeal of spending three weeks in the Marriott. The laundry was done. Tons of it. The teams were fed; 19,000 chicken wings delivered one night. The tournament was played. Baylor won.

When the championship game ended, there were mass sighs of relief, and hardly anyone noticed that the usual confetti shower didn’t rain down upon the Bears. That’s because the confetti cannon went off seven hours too early in the roof of Lucas Oil Stadium. Had you been there at 4 o’clock, you would have seen a ton of the stuff.

Here, a year later, are a few other moments that linger:

the JW Marriott banner was updated throughout the tournament. (IBJ file photo)

How, after a sponsorship fell through, officials had to scramble for the money to pay for the bracket on the side of the JW Marriott. Can you imagine that month without it?

How the NCAA put together a plan to bring the team bands to the Final Four because everyone missed them. But the medical folks swatted that idea as if it were a badminton shuttlecock.

I remember the team that came to town directly from winning its conference tournament, and the very first thing the coach wanted to know was where to get a few bottles of wine for a staff celebration. When he didn’t like the prices cited by his hotel, he sent out for the bottles and had them brought up from the lobby on a luggage cart.

I remember coming across one of the NCAA selection committee members walking the JW Marriott hallway after midnight. He had crammed so many numbers and metrics into his head, he couldn’t turn off his brain, so he was trying to walk himself to sleep.

I remember when the selection committee came to town in February for meetings and learned firsthand how the bubble would work. Sure, the members could eat a St. Elmo dinner. But not in the restaurant. So, when their work was done at the NCAA office, it was a bus back to the hotel and the food handed to them in a paper bag to take to their rooms. All but one of the committee members, by the way, ordered the shrimp cocktail.

I remember Baylor coach Scott Drew talking about how he would wave a flashlight back and forth in his hotel room at night so his family could see it and do the same thing from another hotel a couple of blocks away.

I remember the day someone in the NCAA Tournament staff meeting first mentioned Victory Field. They were worried about the players having nothing to do in the bubble. They had painstakingly planned trips to the zoo and Topgolf but needed something else. Maybe that nice ballpark across the street? Next thing I knew, I walked around the warning track watching the Arkansas Razorbacks return punts and the Winthrop Eagles playing pickleball. Baylor had a kickball game where the players beat the coaching staff. The coaches didn’t like one of the umpire calls. Victory Field was a game-changer.

I remember the hotel bubble. How one team came up with the idea of an ice cream sundae bar on its floor for players every night, and soon nearly every team was doing it. How Gonzaga set up a hallway bowling league, and UCLA coach Mick Cronin found a place to himself outside the Marriott, so he could smoke a cigar while watching game films of the next opponent. How one athletic director was closing on a house during the week, so he had the papers passed through a door at the JW Marriott to sign.

Villanova University players relax between games at Victory Field. (Photo courtesy of coach Jay Wright/Twitter)

I remember all the letters of greeting from Indianapolis-area children delivered to the teams, including this one: “I’m not sure Butler will be in the tournament but if they do, they will beat you.” The Bulldogs, you might recall, weren’t.

I remember the Sunday morning the VCU team had to be rushed out of the tournament, sent home before it could even play a game because of an outbreak of positives. Elevators were set at the JW Marriott so no one else could use them; team members were hustled down to the lobby, through a closed restaurant, onto Washington Street where buses with water and boxed lunches and extra peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches were waiting. Some who had been helping the star-crossed Rams wept as they left.

I remember all the things players forgot in their hotel rooms when they went to practices, or even games. Once, an Indianapolis police officer had to hop on his motorcycle and race a jersey to Lucas Oil Stadium.

I remember the Baylor Bears having a karaoke session in their meeting room in the Marriott, and the team in the next meeting room over wondering what in the world was happening next door. That would be the Gonzaga Bulldogs. As fate would have it, the two teams destined to play for the national championship were meeting-room neighbors from the very start. The week before the Final Four, the NCAA’s hotel host asked the two coaches if they wanted to move away from each other. Both said no, they were getting along fine.

I remember all the practices at the Indiana Convention Center. The 589th and last was Baylor’s shoot-around on championship Monday. During one session for North Carolina, a non-thinking volunteer put on a Tar Heels shirt and walked onto the practice court to take a selfie, to the annoyance of Roy Williams and the horror of the organizers. During another, the UCLA practice ran so long, the supervisor of that area of the ICC had workers actually walk onto the court, to remind the Bruins they had to go. Another team was due in, and the court had to be sanitized.

Lucas Oil Stadium was divided with a curtain so half the venue could be cleaned post-game while another game played in the other half. (Photo by Shane Bevel/NCAA photos via Getty Images)

I remember all the emails and phone calls from health officials who were monitoring the tournament in every available way. They had seen on TikTok an image of teams too close in a hotel. Fix it. They had seen on television happy winning players spraying one another in their locker room. That water wasn’t from bottles that had been used for drinking, was it? So game organizers started slipping into locker rooms in the second half to put bottles of water by player chairs, not for drinking but for spraying. An image on TV suggested the chairs on the team benches were too close together. Were they? One NCAA staffer had to go and actually measure them to make sure they were really 7 feet apart.

I remember how empty the Marriott felt during Final Four week. How strange the atmosphere was downtown. At a time when excitement would normally be building to host a Final Four, everything was winding down, with 64 teams gone and the threat of infections dwindling. Gonzaga coach Mark Few likened it to “tumbleweed blowing, and nobody around for miles.”

And I remember the Tuesday morning after. The tournament played, the deed done. Baylor’s last stop was to pose in front of the JW Marriott bracket, but just before the picture was taken, the Bears realized the championship trophy had been left in the room. Someone ran to get it, so the photo could be snapped. Then the Bears left for their victory parade back in Texas, and all that was left for Indy were the memories and sense of accomplishment.

One year ago.•

__________

Lopresti is a lifelong resident of Richmond and a graduate of Ball State University. He was a columnist for USA Today and Gannett newspapers for 31 years; he covered 34 Final Fours, 30 Super Bowls, 32 World Series and 16 Olympics. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at mjl5853@aol.com.

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One thought on “Mike Lopresti: A year later, writer reflects on 2021 March Madness

  1. It was a great feat for our city to pull this off without a hitch. I’d love to see this happen again, but alas, without a pandemic, I don’t think it will ever happen. The only sad thing was we had all these games in Indiana, and we couldn’t attend.

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